Missouri’s McCormick Distillery

Booze, shoes, and Blues; at different times in history St. Louis was famous for all three of these. If you do a little digging through history, you’ll find that the state of Missouri hasn’t been very far behind either, at least in the category of booze, or some might even say vice, that is. At one time or the other, Missouri has been first or right at the top in gambling, beer, wine, and whiskey production, tobacco and hemp. (Both for making rope, and for recreational use.)

It all started back in the early 1800’s when things weren’t going all that well for the people of Germany. They had problems with war and were bogged down economically. A lot of them decided to immigrate to the United States. Making the difficult trek from New York to the Midwest, some of them decided to settle on the banks of the Mississippi River and a lot of them knew how to make beer. St. Louis had an inexhaustible supply of water, access to grain, and most importantly; a nice network of limestone caves running underneath the city where you could keep the beer fresh and cold throughout the year before the days of air conditioning by using ice from the nearby river. In 1840 Adam Lemp began brewing the first lager beer in the U.S. soon followed by a guy named Adolphus Busch. Lager actually comes from the German “Lagern” which means, “to store.”

The golden age of brewing began, things went national and then international, fortunes were amassed and mansions were built. Out in the countryside around St. Louis, more of those same German immigrants were busy growing grapes and producing wine. Missouri became one of the country’s leading wine producers. Stone Hill Winery in Hermann was the third largest winery in the country. Other diverse businesses like lumber, animal hides, hemp, flour, whiskey and fruit began to develop and the products were shipped out on steamboats.

The golden age of booze lasted into the next century, until things began to “dry up” with the passing of the Volstead Act, or Prohibition. A lot of the wineries and brewers bit the dust and closed up shop, including one that had been the largest in the country: Lemp Beer. Other companies, like Anheuser Busch, struggled to survive by selling grain and bottled drinks. They boiled the alcohol off of the beer to make “near beer” that was under the legal limit. They also produced some weird stuff like “Malt Nutrive” which was advertised as “an invigorating and seductive tonic” and Car-cho, which was a chocolate soda. They even took a stab at making an imitation grape soda.

There was one alcohol producer, however, that stayed in the business of distilling alcohol throughout prohibition, the only one in the country, as a matter of fact, to do so. And it was located in the tiny town of Westin, Missouri.

McCormick Distilling Company is the oldest and only continuously operating distillery in the United States. It was placed on the National register of Historic Sites in 1976. Today, it still produces the McCormick brand of bourbon whiskey, but it’s main business is to make several proprietary brands of vodka such as Viaka, Congress, Hussar, and Nova.

On January 16, 1920 it became illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. So how did McCormick stay in business as a distiller? There was a small “loophole” in the law that not to many people are familiar with. It seems that it was legal for a physician, after examining a patient, to write a prescription for alcohol as medicine if it “will afford relief to him from some known ailment.” Most of us would probably fit into that category. Prohibition lasted for thirteen years, and during that time, the McCormick Distillery of Westin, Missouri did their patriotic duty to keep the people of the United States healthy and happy.

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